My recent reviews of Elvis Costello reminded me that I’m way, way behind in my plan to review more June Tabor albums and give her a coveted spot on my navigation menu.
Okay, I’ll admit that no one covets a spot on my navigation menu, but the phrase had a nice ring to it.
Costello wrote two songs for June Tabor in the early 90’s: “All This Useless Beauty” on 1992’s Angel Tiger; “I Want to Vanish” on Against the Streams in 1994. Those two albums form part of a period in her career (beginning with Aqaba in 1988) when she expanded her repertoire beyond traditional British and Irish folk music, choosing songs in multiple genres based on the quality of the songwriting. In addition to covering songs by Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson, she brought her remarkable interpretation skills to the works of a wide range of songwriters, including familiar names such as Cole Porter, Charles Mingus, Natalie Merchant and the Gershwin Brothers, and less-familiar but highly talented craftspersons like Bill Caddick, Les Barker and Maggie Holland.
Not caring much for the available but mundane English term to describe those who interpret songs (“song interpreter”), I made up a word that feels more descriptive and accurate: interpretiste, integrating “interpreter” with the French word for artist: artiste. June Tabor is a true interpretiste, not only in her remarkable ability to capture text and subtext of a given song, but in her talent for choosing works that challenge both the singer and the listener. Some of her best interpretations involve songs that present the unpleasant aspects of human life that the typical listener would rather avoid. Because most people consume music designed to make them happy and facilitate their escape from a dreary reality, June Tabor’s work is unlikely to appear on the Top 40 or anywhere in the rotation of a commercial music channel. She is one of those stubborn artists of rare courage who prefers depth to superficiality. And while she has consistently chosen songs that explore the extent of man’s inhumanity to man, she also has a wicked sense of humor and a marked sensitivity to the complex emotions surrounding human love.
Against the Streams is therefore a perfect title for an album by an artist who consistently paddles against the stream.
“Shameless Love” is an exceptionally engaging opening track, one of my favorite songs by anybody, anywhere, anytime. The song was the title track on a 1981 album by Texas singer-songwriter Eric Taylor, and while his excellent lyrics remain in place, the music underwent a complete overhaul. The unremarkable rhythm of the acoustic original was replaced with a superb arrangement by long-time collaborator and pianist Huw Warren that features a palpable syncopated rhythm driven by piano and accordion, punctuated with sharp violin thrusts at the song’s dynamic peak. Taylor’s original also lacked an identifiable melody, rather like early Dylan songs that needed more melodically-oriented artists to flesh out the tune. Here June and Huw fill in the missing pieces of the melodic puzzle to create a tune with delightful movement up and down the scale.
The lyrics spoke volumes to me as a teenager struggling with my nonconventional desires for both boys and girls, and the song still speaks to me today after years of being shamed for my kinky predilections and living (in sin!) with another adult woman. I don’t think there was a specific moment when I turned the corner, but somewhere along the path there came a point where the judgments of others stopped bothering me: I knew in my heart and soul that the love I felt was a pure as pure could get, and I wasn’t going to let anyone interfere with the free expression of such a precious feeling:
Here’s my heart and all that’s in it
Some say roses, and some say thorns
Some say I’m a fool to give it
Crazy as the moon in a midnight storm
I learned that it was crazier not to give all I am and all I had to give.
Taylor’s lyrics suggest that shameless love is achieved after the emotional release of a good cry, and I do remember a lot of good cries during the period when the light was finally dawning—cries of sadness and joy. It takes a lot of energy to repress both emotion and identity, so it follows that the dam will have to break sooner or later. June’s delivery captures the complexity of this transformation, varying from playful to passionate with a tinge of melancholy at the end, all expressed through exceptional command of build dynamics and thoughtful, deliberate phrasing.
We can be thankful that June brought her immense vocal talent to Elvis Costello’s “I Want to Vanish,” for Costello’s version (on All This Useless Beauty, released two years after June’s recording) reveals his limitations as a vocalist in a quite unflattering manner. The melodic line features a great deal of variation, especially noticeable on the near-octave leaps that appear frequently in the song. You can hear Elvis struggling to hit those notes—an effort that also throws off his breathing—but for June it’s a walk in the park. Costello told Lydia Hutchinson of Performing Songwriter that the song was not about Princess Diana as many have assumed, but “a whole story about a backwoods musician who was being pursued by these documentary filmmakers, and all these images that were being put on satellite television were in the lyric of that song.” June’s interpretation, marked by a certain elegance in delivery, does call up images of a trophy wife trapped at a banquet table laden with silver candelabras and surrounded by bores who consider her little more than an addition to the decoration:
Whether in wonder or indecent haste
You arrange the mirrors and the spools
To snare the rare and precious jewels
That were only made of paste
Listeners often choose to interpret songs in their own way, but however you interpret June Tabor’s version of “I Want to Vanish,” the excellence of the vocal performance cannot be denied.
June returns to her folk roots with “False, False” (Roud 8276), though I doubt the original featured a background as refined as Huw Warren’s supporting piano, Mark Emerson’s subtly evocative strings and Mark Lockheart’s subtle but stirring clarinet. What I love here is that while June plays the role of woman rejected for another, her vocal maintains its strength even in the saddest moments, a choice that beautifully complements the song’s narrative flow. The marvelous Peta Webb, who recorded the song on her album The Magpie’s Nest, described the song as one that “moves from tragedy to optimism in three short verses of striking poetic imagery,” and June beautifully captures that whirl of emotions in her delivery. After admitting that fulfillment was a long shot at best (“against the stream I was rowing”), the woman rises from the emotional devastation to express her firm belief that true love is still possible:
But I mean to climb up some higher, higher tree
And harry a white snowflake’s nest,
And down shall I fall, ay, without any fear
To the arms that love me the best.
In one sense, the song bears a striking similarity to “Shameless Love,” in that it is indeed possible to feel two completely opposite emotions at the same time. Ah, the wonder of being human!
We now move on to Richard Thompson’s contribution to crime fiction in the person of that “cold steel woman” known as “Pavanne,” the “beauty as elegant as ice.” This character sketch of a hit woman specializing in political assassinations is remarkably complete, and as is often the case, the seeds of her psychosis were planted in childhood trauma.
And they say she grew up well provided for,
Her mother used to keep her boys for sure.
And father’s close attentions led to talk,
She learned to stab her food with a silver fork.
June maintains the suspense as the story plays out, rendering the tale’s conclusion by opening the final verse in sotto voce to replicate the whispering gossip of the masses who have been following the case in the papers. She then rises to full power as she delivers the shocking truth about this female psychopath:
And they say she didn’t do it for the money,
And they say she didn’t do it for a man.
They say that she did it for the pleasure,
The pleasure of the moment.
Kudos again to Huw Warren for exceptionally sensitive piano support that faithfully tracks June’s emotional narrative.
You will often find at least one song on a June Tabor album that leaves you emotionally devastated, and on Against the Streams that song is “He Fades Away.” Written by the late Alistair Hewitt, Scottish immigrant to the lands down under and confirmed Trotskyite Socialist, the song consists of the reflections of an Australian woman who tends to her husband as he wastes away from lung disease caused by years of toil in the asbestos mines. Hewitt’s original is a decent piece of work, and while his empathy is admirable, the song needed a woman’s voice and sensibility to realize its potential.
The song begins with June’s voice, a voice expressing exhaustion, resignation and infinite sadness. She is soon joined by Andy Cutting on the diatonic accordion, a sound that serves to intensify the unimaginable heartbreak:
There’s a man in my bed I used to love him
His kisses used to take my breath away
There’s a man in my bed I hardly know him
I wipe his face and hold his hand
And watch him as he slowly fades away
He fades away
Not like leaves that fall in autumn
Turning gold against the grey
He fades away
Like the bloodstains on the pillow case
That I wash every day
He fades away
The second verse deals with the complications surrounding compensation, highlighting the cold, impersonal bureaucratic response of the state (“The lawyer says we might get compensation/In the course of due procedure/But he couldn’t say for certain at this stage”). June maintains that tone of resignation throughout the verse, indifferent to the possibility of compensation for reasons to be poignantly clarified in the final verse. The song then moves to the bridge, where we learn her husband is not the only victim of Austrailia’s Wittenoom mines. While Hewitt’s delivery in the original feels polemical and political, no one can express righteous outrage as effectively and genuinely as June Tabor. Her tone and phrasing change noticeably when she mentions the mines, seething with deep-seeded anger and human outrage at the sheer senselessness of the sacrifice:
And he’s not the only one
Who made that trip so many years ago
To work the Wittenoom mines
So many young men old before their time
And dying slow
They fade away
Wheezing bags of bones
Their lungs half clogged and full of clay
He fades away
She returns to that achingly moving tone of resignation in the final verse as she remarks on the absurdity of the compensation that may or may never come, subtly condemning the values of a system founded on the belief that money is an effective palliative for grief:
There’s a man in my bed they never told him
The cost of bringing home his weekly pay
And when the courts decide how much they owe him
How will he spend his money
When he lies in bed and coughs his life away?
The bitter irony of the story is that the Wittenoom Mines did in fact close at the end of 1966, but the closure had nothing to do with the individuals and families whose lives were ruined. No, the firm in question “closed its asbestos mining operations at Wittenoom claiming lack of profitability and falling of asbestos prices.” You can read the timeline of the disaster online, but that cold list of facts won’t come close to matching the impact of June Tabor’s moving performance.
“The Irish Girl” is a mysterious tale of abandoned love from singer-songwriter Peter Bond. Though the “plot” is somewhat surreal, the moral of the story is that a man “Seeking his fortune while the brightest jewel/Was within his reach all the while” is the ultimate fool. It’s a lovely song, marvelously supported by a string arrangement that weaves itself beautifully around the melody. Next comes a brief traditional intermission combining two different fragments, the song title drawing its name from the first (“Apples and Potatoes”) while the second is based on the tune from “God Killed the Devil.” The highlight of the piece is when June shifts to nonsense syllables in a burst of “traditional scat” delighting in the sounds of the did-a-lee-doos rolling off her tongue.
“Beauty and the Beast” is actually a poem by Jane Yolen set to music by the multi-talented Huw Warren, where June abandons singing for straight poetic narrative. We find the curiously matched couple in their golden years, the loping rhythm established by Huw Warren’s piano hinting that they’re taking a stroll about the grounds. The music of the primary theme combines C major during the verses and G minor emphasizing the fifth in the gaps, indicating that all may not be sunshine and roses in Beast Land beneath the superficial trappings. Beauty’s naïve belief in her ability to uncover the prince trapped beneath a beastly façade turns out a crapper, as she describes Beast as “graying around the muzzle.” The ultimate sacrificial lamb then claims she has “No regrets—-None.” At that point, the main musical theme vanishes, the key shifts to a pattern emphasizing half-step dissonance, and in a haltering voice, Beauty (speaking through June) reveals that she does in fact have regrets—that she and Beast were unable to have children.
The woman is a complete fucking idiot.
Dr. Jennifer James famously called bullshit on this fairytale, describing it as one that perpetuates the myth that “you can marry one of those guys and clean him up.” Jane Yolen wrote (among other things) books for children, so given her family-friendly bias, her mild revision of the story is hardly surprising. What I resent about both the original and this update is that both present the woman as weak and submissive, a wimp who accepts the limited choices offered her by society and who can only preserve her status as a good girl by sacrificing her life for the family. I have no problem with women who want children—I have a problem with women who buy into the narrative that they will never achieve full womanhood unless and until they get the production line going. Love the arrangement, love June’s portrayal of the character, loathe both the tale and the moral of the story.
I return to a much happier place when I hear the accordion strains that open “The Turn of the Road,” a touching and beautiful love song adapted from an old Irish tune by prolific writer, poet, satirist and comic Les Barker. The theme centers on the essential truth governing any intimate relationship: anyone can love someone “for better” but the true test lies in the “for worse.”
Will you walk with me
Beyond the road’s turning,
Where Day takes the valley
That leads into Night?
Love will you walk with me
All through my journey
Or only til’ the light?
June’s delivery on this piece is a combination of deliberate and careful enunciation (as if she’s making sure the partner fully understands) and bursts of intense passion around the vital importance of unconditional love. The power of the combination is best demonstrated in her exceptional phrasing, particularly on the couplet “The turn of the road, my love/That’s where I need you” where she extends the melodic line on the first verse to emphasize the intimate phrase, “my love,” then frames THAT’S around microscopic pauses to make the meaning clear. After a long and lovely accordion and string duet, we arrive at the climactic moment where the last two verses are repeated over more assertive supporting music and June sings the lines in a tone revealing complete confidence in the power of unconditional love:
Love, will you hold me
Through all my life’s evenings?
Love, will you take the road
Right to the end?
I never had someone
I could believe in
Forever my lover, my friend.
Oysterband mate Ian Telfer penned “Windy City,” a bitter ode to cities in the northern climes that began dying with predictable frequency following the decline in manufacturing and the loss of empire status. Mark Locklear trades his clarinet for tenor sax, giving this largely piano-driven song a touch of urban grit. The narrator is a youth desperate to escape the dead-end life of a rust belt denizen and relocate to sunnier climes (both literally and economically). The song reaches its emotional peak in the center, where June delivers the bridge, spitting out the words with unrestrained bitterness and bile:
We went to church on Sunday
We wore our Sunday best
We went to work on Monday
The damned just like the blessed
Just like the blessed
Locklear then follows with an equally expressive sax solo that qualifies as a pure knockout moment. It’s followed by a passage of quiet reflection and relief as the narrator arrives at the train station to make his escape. June emphasizes the “never” in the phrase “And I’m never coming back” in various ways—once through hard emphasis, once as settled fact and once by echoing the word gently in the fade, reflecting the relief of escape.
Bill Caddick, a regular contributor to June’s repertoire, earns the album’s closing spot with the gentle and lovely lullaby “Waiting for the Lark.” The spare backing music of gently plucked single string notes reflects the quiet moments of early morning before the sun has risen in pastoral lands where time is not measured by the clock but by the sounds and sights of the natural world. The sound of the lark is the true wake-up call in such a clime, a signal to the farmer that it’s time to till the fields or tend to the trees. It just so happens that I’m reading Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders at present, and there are several scenes in that book that could have been set to Caddick’s wonderful music and June’s gentle voice:
Sleep on child while the birds rest on
And the cow she sleeps in her stall.
Oh the meadow stands grey
In this dew-down moment before the day.
And waits for the lark to call.
And waits for the lark to call.
Though I will always be a city girl, hearing this song and reading Hardy make me yearn for a world that isn’t driven by artificial and arbitrary notions of time but by rhythms more compatible with the human spirit.
Twenty-five years after its release, Against the Streams confirms its status as a timeless work of pure artistry and exceptional courage. Such a description applies in varying degrees to all June Tabor’s work, but the diversity and depth of Against the Streams certainly qualifies it as one of her best. While superficial can be fun, it’s also exhausting in that you have to keep going back for more to scratch whatever itch you have. Listening to deeper, richer music that explores the core of human existence may feel challenging at first, but when it’s delivered by an artist as talented and sensitive as June Tabor, such music leaves you feeling fully engaged, fully alive and more closely connected to your fellow travelers on life’s journey.
Love me or hate me, but the one thing that is beyond dispute is that my perspectives on music have never been influenced by commercial considerations, a desire for fame or the opinions of Establishment critics.
From a financial perspective, altrockchick.com is one of the worst-performing enterprises in history: after six years, 400 reviews and 1.5 million words, I have earned zero revenue while piling up thousands of dollars/euros in expenses. I write anonymously because the last thing in the world I want to experience is the personality distortion and general weirdness that usually comes with fame. I do read the opinions of Establishment critics, but most of the time I find myself offended by their sheer laziness, astonishing pomposity and the façade of objectivity they attempt to project. I’m sorry, but if you’re getting paid to write reviews for a magazine, newspaper or website, your objectivity is automatically compromised by the need to earn a paycheck, and the fact that the enterprise that employs you also sells advertising to the music industry compromises you even further. Commercialization of criticism demands short, punchy reviews that attempt to distill the essence of an artist’s work in as few words as possible so consumers can make buying decisions. It does not encourage understanding.
What’s sad is that many music listeners parrot the words and thoughts of Establishment critics instead of thinking for themselves. This dynamic helps create a common consensus around a particular work, and as I’ve learned in my reviews of Abbey Road, Arthur, Dark Side of the Moon and others, people who have accepted the common consensus—in large part because it validates the feeling of being “right” and lets them feel like they “belong” to a cohesive thought community—react to “No, I think that album really sucks” by aggressively attacking the heretic who dares to think differently. This is not healthy. The only valid purpose of criticism is to share one’s interpretations to help readers or listeners clarify what they feel and think about a given piece of work. In our fucked-up world, common consensus criticism has become the “official party line,” and woe unto those who deviate from the dogma.
I bring this up because the Establishment interpretation of Shoot Out the Lights has forged a common consensus that is total, unmitigated bullshit. Since they all come to the same conclusion, I’ll just cite two examples I found particularly offensive, and respond to each in turn.
Mark Deming, AllMusic: Shoot Out the Lights has “often been cited as Richard Thompson’s greatest work, and it’s difficult for anyone who has heard his body of work to argue the point.”
Altrockchick: According to Mr. Deming, Richard Thompson should have walked out of the studio after the final mixing session of Shoot Out the Lights and blown his brains out instead of hanging around for twenty-six years producing substandard work. Note that Mr. Deming dares you to disagree with the common consensus, which is pretty much all he has to support his ridiculous conclusion. I have listened to Richard Thompson’s entire body of work and I guarantee you he would not have earned status as my favorite songwriter had he abandoned his career after Shoot Out the Lights—shit, he wouldn’t have made the Top 20. His solo career features dozens of songs and several albums that are far superior to his work here. What is true is that Shoot Out the Lights was his breakout album—the moment in time when he developed a clear sense of artistic direction and emerging confidence.
Robert Christgau, Village Voice: “News of the wife’s solitary return to England brings this relationship-in-crisis album home–including the husband’s ‘bearded lady’ warning in ‘The Wall of Death,’ ostensibly a synthesis of his thanatotic urge and lowlife tic. If poor Richard’s merely ‘A Man in Need,’ I’m an ayatollah, but I have to give him credit–these are powerfully double-edged metaphors for the marriage struggle, and ‘Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?’ is as damning an answer song as Linda could wish.”
Altrockchick: Christgau has always been an arrogant prick, a man far more interested in self-promotion and the delivery of highfalutin’ wit than helping his readers better appreciate the music. His read here is superficial at best, focused more on the juicy titillation factor in the Thompson breakup than the content of the music itself, interpreting every song through the lens of a collapsing relationship. The truth is that even an extremely loose interpretation of the lyrics on the album will tell you that a grand total of two of eight songs deal with relationship problems, and that neither “Wall of Death,” nor “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” have anything to do with the Thompson situation. His “thoughts” on this album (minus the usual pompous references) barely rise to the standards of a gossip columnist.
There is also another problem in labeling Shoot Out the Lights Richard Thompson’s greatest work, namely the mediocre vocals of one Linda Thompson. Struggling with her diaphragmatic breathing due to pregnancy, she manages to hit the notes most of the time, but her phrasing is inconsistent, sometimes disconnected from the lyrics she’s singing. Her primary means of expressing emotion is to raise her volume, but since she also gets louder when straining to reach notes at the upper end of her range, it’s hard to tell when she’s going for feeling or struggling with the scale. Truth is, she wasn’t much of a singer to begin with, especially when compared to her contemporaries. With Linda Thompson, you don’t get the stunning clarity of Anne Briggs, the remarkable presence of Sandy Denny, the breathtaking range and dynamic command of Maddy Prior, or the brilliant interpretive skills of June Tabor. Replace Linda with any of those singers and you’d certainly have a better album, though to label it Richard Thompson’s greatest work would still be a rather significant stretch. Shoot Out the Lights is like the key that unlocked the door, a celebration of self-discovery where Richard Thompson resolved the internal struggle between the spiritual and secular, reconnected with his guitar and began to live up to his immense potential as a songwriter.
The first thing you notice on “Don’t Renege on Our Love” is Richard Thompson’s new-found confidence in his vocals. If you listen to the Richard & Linda albums preceding Shoot Out the Lights, Richard sings almost apologetically, like he’s concerned that taking command will expose a fatal flaw. Here he sticks self-deprecation where the sun don’t shine and delivers a forceful but attenuated vocal that captures a range of psychic states, from frustrated lover to broken-hearted beggar to outraged victim of betrayal. The notion of betrayal will become a major theme in his work to come; at this point, his sense of right-and-wrong is as rigid as rigid gets (“Do I take you for a lover or just a deceiver?”), failing to recognize that the whole thing could be a simple misunderstanding. The theme of betrayal also carries with it a deeply held belief that for love to be real it must be pure in word and deed, including love in its carnal form. It’s a belief I hold myself, but when distrust begins to creep into a relationship, it’s easy for the still-active libido to rise up and offer itself as the solution to the relationship problem—if we can just fuck, everything will be all right. The problem is that when the poison starts to spread in concert with the sexual urge, it amplifies the original suspicion, negating the healing power of physical love:
There’s a rope that binds us and I don’t want to break it
If love is a healing why should we forsake it
Well hunger is hunger and need is need
Am I just another mouth to feed
That creeping, dark feeling is perfectly captured in the progressively dissonant chord changes that accompany the fade—a punctuation mark that clearly communicates both the underlying fear and the unlikelihood that the relationship can be salvaged. I love the sprightly, sharp guitar fills throughout the song—just enough and not too much from a man who has the guitar chops to dominate any song he chooses to dominate. I’d also love to pin some kind of medal on Dave Mattacks for sustaining the skip-and-roll pattern throughout the song without having his arms lock up in protest.
“Walking on a Wire” may present us with the woman’s side of the same story; then again, maybe not. It’s easy to make that assumption because of the juxtaposition, but to take that a step further and connect the two songs to the Thompson breakup would be an overreach. Richard wrote both songs, and there’s nothing about “Walking on a Wire” that makes it gender-specific. The one thing we can say with certainty is that “Walking on a Wire” is an emotional powerhouse sung from the perspective of a human being experiencing the slow death of a relationship and unable to do anything to stop it. Here Linda overcomes the challenges of a compromised voice, oscillating between the release of repressed frustration and the utter exhaustion that comes with an attempt to a rescue a relationship that is probably long gone.
Too many steps to take
Too many spells to break
Too many nights awake
And no one else
This grindstone’s wearing me
Your claws are tearing me
Don’t use me endlessly
It’s too long, too long to myself
Richard’s low-end harmony on the chorus helps strengthen the sense of despair that permeates the piece, and he delivers another superb guitar solo that reinforces the tender melody.
After two relatively heavy pieces, the bouncy “Man in Need” comes as something of a relief, and no, Mr. Christgau, this is not Richard Thompson singing about Richard Thompson but Richard Thompson playing the part of a peripatetic man of the sea whose urge to wander and fear of commitment leaves him in quite a pickle when it comes to securing the basics of food, shelter and clothing. His conundrum is “Hey, I’m only doing what comes natural to me” and is completely oblivious to the fact that most people would consider a man who abandoned his dependents and has proven himself little more than a sponge to be an undesirable companion. Richard Thompson delivers the vocal with carefree abandon, tongue firmly planted in cheek, supported by a cascading set of call-and-response vocals from Linda on the chorus. The guitar solo is an absolute delight, a set of nimble thrusts centered around the melody, a solo that makes you wonder about the sanity of the Mullah who had encouraged Richard Thompson to give up playing electric guitar to facilitate his quest for higher spiritual consciousness. That idiotic advice led to a three-year hiatus after Pour Down Like Silver, but he really wouldn’t regain the sparkle in his chops until Shoot Out the Lights—and thank fucking god he did.
Linda returns to the mike for “Just the Motion,” a gentle, reflective piece that reminds us that any change to the routine is more difficult than we’d like to believe. For the most part, she does a decent job, particularly in the quieter opening verse. Unfortunately, when she arrives at the ending, she goes classic crescendo when the song demands the opposite. This is most noticeable on the second repetition of the line, “You can’t hear the storm, it’s as peaceful as can be.” The text after the comma should be delivered like this:
as can be
Instead, we get:
as can be
Every time I hear her ramp up the volume on PEACEFUL–a word that by definition should alert the singer to back the fuck off—I clench my teeth so hard I feel an overwhelming urge to run to the dentist to make sure I didn’t break a molar. It comes across as “Goddamn it, can’t I get any PEACE AND QUIET around here?” Since the only other cover of the song is David Byrne’s typically beat-happy approach, I’ll just have to sit back and hope that June Tabor decides to finally put together a Richard Thompson tribute album and give us the definitive version. What saves this track is the sheer excellence of the song and the perfectly lovely combination of electric guitar and dulcimer. “Just the Motion” is a gem that deserves better treatment.
Side Two opens with the rough power chords that form the intro to the title song, a clear signal that Richard Thompson has thrown all caution to the wind when it comes to electric guitar. He approaches the vocal with an equal sense of command, relating the tale of a paranoid, gun-toting, anti-social shut-in with stark brevity. The slow, relentless beat accentuated by those power chords seem to reflect a sense of cold determination on the part of our shut-in, making his chosen isolation seem all the more dangerous:
Keep the blind down on the window
Ah, keep the pain on the inside
Just watching the dark. Just watching the dark.
Ah he might laugh but you won’t see him
As he thunders through the night
Shoot out the lights. Shoot out the lights.
After an extended electric guitar solo with loads of dissonance and unexpected shifts over the fretboard, the closing verse expands the sense of danger. Up to this point, the guy seemed to be a crackpot more likely to do harm to himself or inflict mayhem on a few stray neons in the vicinity; now the man is on the move and we start to wonder if the lights in question are the lights of human life:
In the darkness the shadows move
In the darkness the game is real
Real as a gun. Real as a gun.
As he watches the lights of the city
And he moves through the night
Shoot out the lights. Shoot out the lights.
A second ripping solo accentuates the high end of the fretboard in an extended scream, followed by attacks both high and low. The experience of “Shoot Out the Lights” is remarkably compelling, a disturbing but credible depiction of the anger that courses through those who feel they have been left behind—by choice or by social selection.
“Back Street Slide” is a character sketch portraying women who have little else to do but spread slanderous gossip about anyone who flies through their finely-attuned radar screens. “Gatemouth woman leaning on the fence/She’s got no teeth, she’s got no sense/You don’t need much intelligence” is a pithy description, but in the end the lyrical narrative doesn’t go much further. The strength of the song can be found in the bouncy beat and party-like feel of the arrangement, melding the joyous rhythm with loosely-fitting background vocals from Linda. I like the listening experience, but the song shows that Richard Thompson still had room to grow as a lyricist—and grow he would, Mark Deming be damned.
The only co-written song on “Shoot Out the Lights” is “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” where Linda Thompson shares the honors. Christgau’s assertion that this is some kind of answer song in the context of the breakup is certainly a creative interpretation, but there’s no evidence to support that flight of fancy. Any rational person who ACTUALLY READS THE LYRICS would conclude that the song deals with the status of women in society. And though Linda Thompson’s receives co-writing credit, Richard Thompson wrote the lyrics, and in a 2008 interview with the blogger behind I Shot a Man in Reno, Richard shared his approach to the song:
How do you approach the subject of death in your writing? Do you consciously come at it from a specific angle?
You don’t sit down to moralise or write about your philosophy every time you write a song. You just write a story. It’s fiction and it’s fun to make something up, it’s an enjoyable process. Then you look at it afterwards and you think, ‘Oh that’s obviously about me or about someone I know, and that reflects what I believe.’ With a song like “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” I sat down to write a story. It could be about Sandy [Denny] or a couple of other people that I know…. I don’t think it is about any person in particular. It’s a bit like detective fiction, it has some of the same goriness and detail. In good detective fiction there’s always a corpse, otherwise you feel unsatisifed. The song doesn’t really give any answers, it just asks the moral questions.
The “moral question” has to do with society’s tendency to doubt a woman’s credibility. Since it’s pretty obvious that the woman in the song did not off herself (given the fingerprints on her throat) some may wonder why the premise of the song is posed as a mystery, but every woman alive knows the answer to that question: the broad is always to blame, never to be believed, and if she was raped and strangled, she must have been asking for it. The fact that we need to ask the question is the moral of the story.
In this case, the woman was definitely trying to become a player, inviting only “the chosen” to her parties, double-crossing old friends without a second thought. In addition to committing the cardinal sin of encroaching on traditional male territory, she makes the same mistake many women have made in attempting to achieve equality: believing that if you want to play with the guys, you have to act like a guy. We do not know what specifically led to her death, but she did fail to take into account the warning signs that she was pushing too hard: “The truth came ’round and she refused it.” Her “fatal flaw” was her ambition—or more accurately, that she dared to even have ambitions. Wherever you land in the interpretation, “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” is a superbly-written work, a song that leaves plenty of room for the listener to engage in both debate and self-reflection on the status of women in our societies.
Some of Richard Thompson’s stories are dramatic narratives sung from the perspective of the adolescent male, with “Read About Love” earning status as my personal favorite. “Wall of Death” is one such song, and any interpretation that says otherwise is absolute nonsense (Hello, Robert Christgau). This is a light-hearted song about how the natural desire of a young person to experience the essence of life tends to lead the youth to court risk and tempt fate—in this case, to experience the most dangerous carnival ride available, The Wall of Death.
This seemed to be a guy thing, a necessary rite of passage into culturally-induced manhood, so I asked my Dad about it. He told me that in high school, he and his friends liked to drive down Highway 1 around Devil’s Slide, a twisty, curvy dangerous coastal road that sometimes falls into the ocean in torrential rains. They’d take the curves at double the speed limit, then rate the risk factor on a 1-10 scale. “A ’10’ was death. We had a ‘9’ once, with two wheels over the edge of the cliff. I’ll never forget that one.” “Why the fuck did you do such a fucking stupid thing?” I asked politely and respectfully. “I can’t explain it—it was dumb but we just had to do it. It’s a version of the Rebel Without a Cause thing—floor it, head for the cliff and jump out just in time.” “Uh, Dad, Buzz didn’t make it.” “Yeah, but Jim did,” he replied with a tenuous sense of triumph.
Our teenage hero embraces that urge, dismissing the more conventional outlets of excitement as poor substitutes for the ultimate thrill:
On the Wall Of Death all the world is far from me
On the Wall Of Death it’s the nearest to being free
Well you’re going nowhere
When you ride on the carousel
And maybe you’re strong
But what’s the good of ringing a bell
The switchback will make you crazy.
Beware of the bearded lady
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death
When he later describes the experience as “the nearest thing to being alive,” he reinforces the belief that the daily routine is a form of existential death while capturing the feature of the human personality that leads us to feel more alive and alert when faced with danger, especially when one’s life is on the line. It’s the same tendency we see in the stories of people who lived through WWII (on the Allied side, of course), who describe those years as the most exciting of their lives. It seems crazy, but when you look at it from the opposite perspective, it’s a damning commentary about how our well-organized societies fail to provide much in the way of meaningful challenges.
The music is hardly funereal, featuring stereo arpeggiated guitar patterns and Linda’s best high harmonies on the album. Richard Thompson really identifies with the character, imbuing his vocal with the tone of a guy who has found his niche in life and is intensely proud of it. And goddamn, I love that guitar solo—especially that delightful high-speed arpeggiated transition back to the vocals. It sounds magical, reflecting the magical experience of an adolescent boy experiencing the thrill of his life.
“Wall of Death” is a strong finish to an album that is hardly the one-dimensional exploration of a breakup that Establishment critics would have you believe. Shoot Out the Lights explores a wide range of the human experience, as do most of Richard Thompson’s subsequent works. Like the boy in “Wall of Death,” Richard Thompson has found his niche; unlike that young lad obsessed with a single experience, Richard Thompson would find himself at home anywhere his creative mind would take him—an aesthetically-oriented wanderer, a “Man in Need” with clear intent to apply his ample musical talent to the challenge of understanding the many facets of human experience.
Shoot Out the Lights is simply the true beginning of one of the most productive and enjoyable journeys ever recorded.